The Red Badge of Courage

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The Red Badge of Courage Themes

Themes and Colors
Courage Theme Icon
The War Machine Theme Icon
Youth and Manhood Theme Icon
Noise and Silence Theme Icon
Nature Theme Icon
The Living and the Dead Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in The Red Badge of Courage, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.

Red Badge is a study of courage and fear, as seen in the shifting currents of Henry's thoughts and actions during the battle. Henry begins the story with youthful romanticized ideas about courage from the classical tradition: in particular, the heroic ideals found in the ancient Greek epic poem the Iliad by Homer. In the Iliad, warriors mingle with gods, die gloriously, and enjoy everlasting fame. But the tremendous violence of the Civil War…

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Red Badge uses the language of machines, labor, and industry to describe war. In contrast, Henry dreams about a classical idealized kind of war. But that kind of romanticized war, emphasizing heroic action, is a thing of the fictional past: it has no relation to an industrial war such as the Civil War, in which individual soldiers become cogs in a much larger machine. As Red Badge reveals, the war machine is designed to move…

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All the men in the 304th regiment are inexperienced in battle, and many—like Henry and Wilson—are very young. The narrative consistently refers to Henry as "the youth," emphasizing his naïveté. Though Red Badge is mostly about finding courage, it is also largely about Henry's quest to become a man. Because of his romantic view of war, Henry initially thinks he'll achieve manhood through fighting. And for him, and many other soldiers, manhood seems to…

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From popping musketry to the belching of artillery explosions to the "devotional silence" of the woods, Red Badge gets much of its descriptive power from its descriptions of sound. The noises of battle give the reader a soldier's point of view and do more than just describe war: they convey the intensely disorienting experience that battle must have been for soldiers on the ground. For a low-ranking infantryman like Henry, noise is his only…

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Henry has a keen eye for his surroundings, and descriptions of landscapes get a great deal of attention in the narrative. Descriptions of scenery emphasize the stark difference between nature and the war machine. Battles look strangely inappropriate being fought on sunny fields. When the smoke clears, the sky is just as blue and beautiful as before. Nature exists separately from the war, going "tranquilly on with her golden process in the midst of so…

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Henry is fascinated by the spectacle of death. He looks into the eyes of corpses for answers to his questions about death, but they fail to communicate anything but strangeness, emptiness, and horror. When Henry and Wilson each get a flag to carry for the regiment, a position of honor, each time they must wrestle it from the hands of a dying man. Without providing any definitive answers, Red Badge explores a host of questions…

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